Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why economics should not have a "moral core"

Here's a nice take on the Glaeser piece I noted below ( )

going beyond the facts is precisely what Glaeser's "moral compass" would have us do. Suppose psychologists find that people are less happy when they have the choice to become addicted to heroin. Should economists refuse to accept this fact? If I were an economist studying heroin addiction, I'd say: "Hey, policymakers and voters, here's the deal. If you let people do heroin, their happiness will go down, but they'll have more freedom of choice. I'll let you guys decide what to do."
Glaeser disagrees. He seems to think the economist's duty is either to A) recommend the alternative that entails more freedom of choice, or B) disbelieve the finding that allowing heroin use reduces happiness. (A) is saying that economists, as a class, have a fixed and definite role in deciding society's morality, kind of like a priesthood. (B) is saying that intellectual honesty and scientific integrity must take a back seat to a faith-based belief system.
Whichever he is saying, I highly disapprove.
If we limit our set of economic theories to those that seem to recommend individual freedom of choice - if we give economics a "moral compass" - we are refusing to take an honest look at the way the world really operates. That, in my moral opinion, is bad science.
And don't think that this doesn't happen in practice. Many of the same economists who espouse a belief in individual freedom of choice are biased against theories that imply a need for collective decision-making. They routinely refuse to believe in the existence of public goods, demand fluctuations, and other phenomena that imply a role for government. Behavioral economic theories, which assert that people are sometimes irrational, are routinely pooh-poohed by "conservative" economists, regardless of the mountain of laboratory evidence in those models' favor.

In short, the widespread belief that economists should act both as scientists and as priests has made them less effective as scientists.

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